Congregation-Based Community Organizing

Words of the poet Marge Piercy – which Emily Economou read last November at the service at which you installed me as your minister:
“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.”
Work that is real. A person cries "for work that is real." Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have understood that work that is real involves working for peace and justice.

Work that is real brings together our transformation with the world’s transformation.

Work that is real stretches us, deepens us – it works the worker into becoming a wiser and gentler person.

Work that is real makes the world a better place, but we must be careful to avoid the trap of thinking self-righteously and pridefully that we possess infallible knowledge of what is “better” and what the best way to get there is. Our knowledge is always incomplete. Our values are never the only ones worthwhile.

Work that is real becomes possible when, recognizing our fallibility and incompleteness and doubts, we decide not to let them paralyze us – when we resolve to move forward with our most thoughtful best guess as to what we and our world most need.

Work that is real is self-correcting. We don’t have to be sure we’re right before we act, we don’t have to get it right the first time, because the process of praxis is an ongoing cycle of action and reflection upon that action. With work that is real, because we cannot know everything beforehand, we learn as we go, acting in the world, coming together to reflect on the experience, modifying our approach, and returning to action.

Work that is real is central to the Unitarian Universalist enterprise. I was a teenager in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta in the 1970s.
I remember a worship service put on by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (those olive-drab field jackets!) and the subsequent anti-war demonstration which I think I was a part of. It’s what our church was about. And civil rights, and race and poverty analysis went on in my RE classes and I could see the adults organizing classes, rallies, marches, fundraiser benefits on behalf of social justice issues.

It’s what I always understood was an integral part of my congregation. Other kids didn’t seem to have that kind of thing going on at their churches, but when you grow up Unitarian Universalist in Georgia, you know you’re different.

Engaging in service to transform our world is what we have always been about. At Community Unitarian Church, our mission, which we did decide to accept:
Nurture one another’s spiritual journey, foster compassion and understanding, and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
Last week I talked about how we can nurture each other’s spiritual journey and foster compassion and understanding. Today, I want to talk about engaging in service to transform ourselves and our world.

When we adopted our mission, we were giving our articulation, our own expression to what we understand all of Unitarian Universalism to be about. Here we are, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. What does that mean? What’s the purpose of a Unitarian Universalist congregation? We needed to answer that question in our own words, and we did. And we surely got it right.

Unitarians and Universalists have been around for over 200 years in this country, not even counting our history in Europe. Throughout that history, our watchwords have been “deeds not creeds.” We have insisted that faith must be lived.

This church a generation ago determined that it was a nuclear free zone. The sign hangs in the back of our sanctuary, declaring, "This Is a Nuclear Free Zone." It was a stand against nuclear weapons. Of course, the likelihood that the government would ever want to put nuclear weapons where Unitarians might get their hands on them is vanishly small, but the point is we engaged with our world to publically declare opposition to nuclear weapons.

Engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. That’s always been our mission – now we have said so in those exact words. As Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams put it:
"The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of being merely pushed around by it."
Ours is a theology of engagement.

Of course, we are a religious community, not a secular activist organization. Seeking social change is a major part of what we do, but we do it always with an eye toward and within the context of nurturing spiritual growth and building relationships. Approaching justice work as an expression of faith means that how the work is done is as important as the end goal of promoting justice.

We do this work for ourselves – because being caring and engaged people is part of the project of becoming the people we want to be. This is about personal transformation. Our ability to create social transformation is linked with our willingness to go through personal transformation in the process. How can we expect the world to change if we’re not willing to?

Work that is real will stretch us, while engaging us in action and reflection that serves needs greater than our own.

Our best bet is to team up with others.

For one thing, we are small. Joining in coalitions to accomplish good work magnifies our number, multiplies our effectiveness many fold. For another thing, it stretches and grows us. Suppose we are working together with a group of churches that includes predominantly Hispanic Catholic churches, that includes predominantly African-American churches, that includes predominantly lower class evangelical protestants, Muslim organizations. We all care about jobs, education for kids, reducing violence in our neighborhoods.

We aren’t going to agree with them about everything. We aren’t going to see eye-to-eye with many of them about reproductive rights, or LGBT issues or gender issues. Those are important issues for us, and I would never want us to back down being active in those areas. So we need different coalitions to team up with for that part of our work.

The great advantage of teaming up with people with whom we have significant disagreements as well as significant agreements is that it begins to build bridges across our divisions. It gets us out of our insular circle and in touch with people from different walks of life. It stretches us.

I do want us to be allies of the LGBT community, and active in protecting and expanding reproductive rights. And I will speak and advocate for those issues at another time. But we can’t have all our concerns on the table at the same time – not if we’re going to get anything done. If we’re going to effectively stretch ourselves, reach out to those communities we are usually pretty well insulated from – if we’re going to build bridges across the divisions between us and people who are culturally different from us, we have to be willing to temporarily set aside our disagreements, learn from each other. Only thus can we work together on what we do agree on.

There is a relatively new organization in Westchester County, a coalition of faith-based institutions called Westchester United. (See the Westchester United web site HERE, and my brief introduction to what it is HERE.) It’s only a couple years old. It was formed by congregations who, like us, were struggling with how to become more effective, how to matter in the world and in our own hearts. Now it’s up to 20 members in the county. Four of them are community service organizations like Wartburg Adult Care Center in Mt. Vernon, the Council of Community Services in Port Chester, and Second Chance Ministries in New Rochelle. Sixteen of them are congregations: 3 Jewish, 3 Catholic, 2 Muslim, 2 Lutheran, 2 Presbyterian and 1 each of Episcopalian, AME, Baptist – and Unitarian Universalist. The Baptist and the AME are predominantly African-American congregations. Some of the Catholic parishes are predominantly Hispanic. The one Unitarian Univeralist congregation is the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mt. Kisco. I’d like to see all five UU congregations in Westchester make common cause with this group, work together with each other and with those quite different from us on issues that matter to all of us.

Our minister in Mt Kisco, by the way, is Reverend Michael Tino, a gay man married to his partner. He’s very active on LGBT issues, but he recognizes that those aren’t the only issues, and we make different alliances to be effective for different purposes.

Westchester United trains lay leaders and ministers both to discern and to act on the concrete needs of our communities, and also to develop our respective congregations. Westchester United has already had an impact in our county. They have orchestrated meetings with superintendents and police commissioners and built lines of communication that had not existed before. They’ve been instrumental in generating a bill in Albany to protect Kindergarten in New York, proposed in Albany; and we are working nationally for effective gun control.

Westchester United does CBCO – congregation-based community organizing. There are four major national networks of local CBCO associations. Westchester United happens to a part of the national network called IAF – Industrial Areas Foundations – the nation’s first and largest network of multi-faith community organizations. That’s worth mentioning just because it does mean that there are national-level resources for leadership and training that are helping our Westchester coalition be more effective.

A few basic principles of CBCO really appeal to me. People working together have the power to change their communities and their country for the better. We have to believe that in order not to succumb to fatalism. We have to believe that in order to carry out our mission to engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.

A second principle is the iron rule. We have a golden rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In engaging in the work of service and justice, it’s helpful to keep in mind the corollary iron rule:
It is wrong, always and everywhere, to do for another what they can do for themselves. 
I first learned the iron rule when I was engaged in Congregation-Based Community Organizing through an IAF chapter in El Paso. These groups take the iron rule seriously. They are very aware of the risk that charity can create dependency, and they know that’s not the best way to do good in the world. Congregation-based community organizing isn’t about doing for others what they could do for themselves. It’s about removing barriers to opportunity so that everyone can do for themselves.

Congregation-based community organizing like Westchester United challenges people to imagine the change they can accomplish, connects a broad range of people and organizations to multiply their power, and helps mobilize people to make their voices heard effectively.

Congregation-based community organizing stresses relating, learning, and acting. "Relate, learn, and act" are the watchwords. Through this community organizing, we relate to people different from ourselves.

The method stresses building relationship, having one-on-one encounters to share with the members of other congregations. Most of us don’t know how to begin to start forming a friendship or a meaningful acquaintanceship with a member of a very different church serving a very different average socio-economic status. Through congregation-based community organizing, we are brought into the contact that allows and encourages and nurtures that to happen. It stretches us, and it organizes us with a larger group so that we can be more effective. That’s the amazing double-whammy of congregation-based community organizing: it transforms both us and our world.

Drawing on the proven power of person-to-person organizing, CBCO associations transform communities and build the local power necessary to create national change. You see, “Community organizing does not consist of deciding on an agenda and then finding the people who share it.” Instead, “The fundamental unit of all community organizing is the 'relational meeting' — a one to one opportunity where a leader listens to another person’s story . . . to learn what drives the other person." It’s a process that starts with training in listening and leads to “a culture where congregants visit and attend to each other.”

One of the wise tenants of church development is that a visiting congregation is a strong congregation. A congregation whose members are out simply visiting – each other, yes, but beyond that, are they visiting outside of their own congregation’s membership? If they are, that’s a sure sign of congregational vitality – and an sign of a church that is and will be growing. The community organizing model “strengthens and mentors leadership; develops a habit of inquiry; and always seeks to enable leaders" (De Leeuw).

In Community Organizing there is constant evaluation. Projects end when they aren’t working and there isn’t lay leadership for them. These skills developed can open up new energy in a congregation.

Gawain DeLeeuw, Episcopal Priest at St. Bartholomew’s in White Plains, who congregation is a member of Westchester United, has written about the experience:
“It is in our listening to each other that our communities become strong and magnetic. They cannot survive if we are merely sitting beside each other, with no awareness of the challenges our neighbors face. . . . Community organizing is precisely about reconciling ourselves within the concrete lives of our communities.”
Westchester United does ask its member institutions to pay dues: one percent of their annual operating budget. "Engage in service to transform ourselves and our world" is one-third of our mission," so shouldn’t it be one-third of our budget? Of course, Westchester United can never be the whole of our social justice engagement with the world – we have values that will require us to also work through additional channels. But the chance to connect with different others, to stand beside them to do work that is real – that’s huge. Surely, that’s revelatory. So maybe 15, or 10 percent of our budget? Not hardly! One percent.

For Father Gawain up at St. Bart’s:
“It wasn’t an easy sell to my financially precarious congregation. But — as we affirm in stewardship season—where our treasure is, our heart will be also. Deciding to invest in Westchester United has paid for itself, and our parish is even more dynamic. The training Westchester United provided has changed the way I work. . . . I’ve spent more time listening to individuals in the community—both new and long-time members—and less time in the office. As a result we now have more committed and more effective lay leaders. New members have taken ownership. Ministries have started without my initiative, with congregants now trained and confident to reach ou to each other. . . . In an age where our political system has lost relationship skills, perhaps we can show a way that both rebuilds our congregations and helps restore our diminishing public culture. We say we believe in reconciliation of the world. But do we risk it, or do we remain inside, thinking that because our door is merely open, the world shall be saved?”
I want you to get a taste of this work that is real. The next Westchester United Assembly is coming up in June. They’ll be selecting the exact date in a few days, and I’ll let you know. It’ll be an evening event, 7:00 to 8:15 or so -- to call attention to and stand for the issues that Westchester United is working on.

"The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real." Let it be so.


  1. My congregation, People's Church, is part of a CBCO group in Kalamazoo County called ISAAC that is affiliated with one of the other networks, Gamaliel. (I would love to know sometime what are the politics that led to IAF and Gamaliel being separate, as they are both headquartered in Chicago and seem to use very similar methods.)

    I think that our church and many of our members has found this work to be very rewarding personally and very successful in terms of community impact. It is in part this work with ISAAC that led to our church receiving a national social justice award from the UUA. http://www.uua.org/action/stories/199486.shtml

    So, I think this is a very good type of social justice work for UU churches, and indeed any religious organizations to engage in. It gets us out of our narrower definitions of "us" into a broader conversation.

  2. Tim, Thanks so much for that comment! It's really helpful to me and to the leaders of my congregation to hear from other churches who have found CBCO to be effective and meaningful. Gratefully, -Meredith